Flying changes, p.1
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       Flying Changes, p.1

         Part #2 of Riding Lessons series by Sara Gruen
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Flying Changes



  To Bob,

  as always

  "And God took a handful of Southerly wind, blew his breath over it, and created the horse."

  Bedouin legend



  Chapter 1

  I awake with a start--one moment I'm riding Harry,...

  Chapter 2

  I'm simultaneously investigating whether I can stop the faucet from...

  Chapter 3

  Forty-five minutes. That's how long she told me it would...

  Chapter 4

  "Eva!" I burst through the back door of our house...

  Chapter 5

  "Lean further back, Jenna. Further. Good. But don't stick your...

  Chapter 6

  When I call Nathalie, she is gracious and happy to...

  Chapter 7

  Hurrah stands utterly still as I sweep my hands across...

  Chapter 8

  "Um, Mrs. Zimmer? Can we stop now?" huffs a sandy-haired twelve-year-old...

  Chapter 9

  I decide to test the issue and wait to see...

  Chapter 10

  It turns out that barn cats are a dime a...

  Chapter 11

  As I head up the drive to the house, Mutti...

  Chapter 12

  When my alarm goes off at six the next morning...

  Chapter 13

  Day Two--the endurance test--and I don't know who's...

  Chapter 14

  Eva and I head toward the car, both of us...

  Chapter 15

  A few hours later we're back on the road. Mutti...

  Chapter 16

  A social worker named Sandra Compton calls the next morning.

  Chapter 17

  I think he carries me to his room. At any...

  Chapter 18

  Dan and I spend the night perched carefully on the...

  Chapter 19

  Back at Maple Brook, a small war erupts. I want...

  Chapter 20

  August 18. Rosemont Stadium, Rochester, New York.


  About the Author

  Other Books by Sara Gruen



  About the Publisher

  Chapter 1

  I awake with a start--one moment I'm riding Harry, my zephyr half, my phantom boy, and the next my eyelids flicker and I'm staring at the ceiling. When I realize I'm not on his back at all--I'm huddled under an eiderdown in the freezing bedroom of the apartment above my mother's stable--I close my eyes and lie perfectly still, trying to coax him to stay. But it's no use--his body dissolves, the reins melt in my hands, and he gallops off, ephemeral as breath on the wind. I move not a muscle, listening as his hoofbeats fade into the ether.

  I hear them. I swear to God I do.

  Harry wafts into my sleep with a regularity that's astounding considering how effectively he used to elude me. For years after his death I longed for him so badly that I'd squeeze my eyes shut at night and cycle endlessly through visions of him--Harry, with his head high and nostrils flared, cantering through a meadow; Harry, sniffing the wind, his ears perked and chest as solid as bedrock; Harry, flinging those magnificent brindled limbs forward like a Saddlebred--hoping they'd seed a dream.

  But they never did. No matter how fiercely I clung to him, at the critical juncture when I lost control he'd slip away to wherever he was, whatever was left, in that place I wasn't allowed. The few times he did come to me were unbidden and horrifying, and always at the precise moment he crashed to his death beneath me all those years ago.

  No more. Now he comes to me in plain view, healthy and whole. And I'm thirty-nine, not eighteen. Sometimes I'm on his back and we're cantering through fields of swaying grass. Sometimes I'm standing at his shoulder and he's blowing into my hand, rumbling a greeting from deep within his chest. Sometimes we're even taking fences, one after another in perfect rhythm.

  More than two decades gone, and he looms as large in my dreamscape as he did in my life.

  A psychologist would probably say that he's always been there and it's only now that I'm letting him come. That I am finally at the point where I can think about him without falling to pieces. This is what I think a psychologist would say. But I can't be sure, because I won't see one.

  Both Mutti and Dan have suggested it, separately, although for the life of me I can't figure out why. Both times my reaction was a combination of sputtering indignation and hurt tinged with anger. That, and an instant replaying of all my recent actions and comments to try to discover why, exactly, everybody around me always thinks I'm nuts. But I must confess that later--in the privacy of my room, when there was no longer any need to feel defensive--I found the idea intriguing. Not intriguing enough to actually consider it, of course, but intriguing enough that I began trying to guess what a psychologist would make of me. It's probably not the healthiest pastime for someone who already analyzes things to shreds, but there it is and there's no stopping it. You can't pluck an idea out like you can a sliver.

  But while Pseudo-Psychologist Me has decided that my dreams are filled to overflowing with Harry because finding his brother has allowed me to heal, there's another part of me that believes in some way I cannot define and would never admit to that Harry has found a way to come back to me, is giving me his blessing, is glad I have Hurrah safely in a box stall beneath me.

  I hug my pillow and sigh, my heart swollen and tender as if I've dreamed of a lover. It's a feeling that will take the length of the day to wear off, and I'm grateful.

  It is his gift to me.

  I dress quickly, hunched against the cold. I left the window open a crack last night, and my breath comes in puffs as I pull on my jeans, sweater, and quilted vest. I pause at the door and then go back to my dresser to drag a brush through my scraggly hair. I'll make myself properly presentable later, but at nearly forty you don't just roll out of bed and go even if you're not expecting to run into anyone. Particularly if you have a sixteen-year-old daughter who is mortified when, as Eva puts it, she catches me "looking like a sea hag."

  I cleaned my brush only the day before yesterday, but it is once again full of hair. The tangled mess rips free with a noise like Velcro opening. I examine it, analyzing the white-to-blonde ratio. Still mostly blonde, thank God--although I have to hold a couple of the hairs up to the light to make sure. Then I lean forward and peer into the mirror, studying both hair and face for general impressions.

  A minute later I hurry down the stairs, booted feet thumping the wood. The main floor of the stable is even colder than the apartment. It's heated, but not to house standards because the horses go out without blankets and we don't want to compromise their winter coats. I rub my hands together, hoping to warm them by friction. I slip into the lounge, which is heated separately, twist the thermostat to a sizzling seventy-four degrees, and start a pot of coffee.

  And now, for my early morning tonic.

  Three or four times a week, fresh from dreams of his brother, I slip downstairs and ride Hurrah. I ride other horses during the day, usually in the context of giving a lesson and finding it easier to show rather than tell, but never Hurrah. Hurrah I ride in private.

  I'm not the one "making an issue of it," as Mutti puts it. It's everyone else who's making an issue of it, and that makes it impossible for me to behave normally. It's a vicious cycle, I know. But how can I ride Hurrah in front of them when I know they're scrutinizing me for signs of obsession? When I know they're interpreting my every look and movement? Given what happened last year, I guess I can forgive them for that. But the end result is I can't ride Hurrah in front of them.

  The only exception to this is the stable hands. If
I'm still on Hurrah when they arrive, I don't immediately slip off and lead him back to his stall, and that's because they know how to give a girl her privacy. They don't pretend they don't see me. They simply nod a greeting and leave me alone with my horse; and in gratitude, I always make sure there's a warm lounge and a pot of coffee waiting for them when they arrive in the morning.

  My horse. The words are so sweet my eyes still prick with tears when I think them. And contrary to popular opinion, I'm well aware of which horse this is. Hurrah may be a virtual doppelganger of his uniquely marked brother, but he is very much his own boy. I'm amazed at how different Hurrah is under saddle--or under leg, since I always ride him bareback. And I don't mean on a bareback pad, either. I mean on a bare back.

  If someone asked me why, I'd say it's because I'm too lazy to tack up, but that's not the reason. And it's also got nothing to do with improving my seat, although as an instructor I prescribe riding bareback on a regular basis. The reason is simple: I want nothing between me and my horse.

  With my knees and calves pressed against his warm, solid muscle and my hands connected to his mouth through a rein that buzzes like a Ouija board, I sense his thoughts as they occur to him. I'd feel clever for that, except he anticipates mine before they've even arrived. At the very moment the concept of canter occurs to me, he arches his neck, brings his hindquarters in, and rocks forward in a gait meant for the dressage ring--a slow gait, collected and floating, a gait that betrays his Olympic past.

  Hurrah transports me, and I give myself over to him. When I ride him I'm a different person--confident, competent, operating at a level somewhere below latent thought and in absolute concert with the magnificent animal beneath me. When I slide from his back, I am recharged and whole. How could I possibly let anyone witness that? It would be like letting someone watch me make love.

  I head for his stall now, heart thumping in anticipation.

  As I round the corner, my eyes light on the open door. I stop, confused, blinking because it doesn't make sense. I checked the horses myself last night. When I realize that I'm not seeing things--that the door to his stall really is open--I break into a run and crash to a halt in front of the sliding-door track.

  The rising sun spills through the bars of his window. Dust swirls in the shafts of cool light like sperm in a Petri dish, but the stall is otherwise empty.

  My head whips back and forth as I assess the possibilities. The doors to the outside are closed, so if the latch wasn't shut and he somehow nosed his door open, he's still in the stable--hopefully not working his way through a bin of feed. Images of laminitis and colic flash through my head.

  I bolt to the cubby that contains the feed bins. They're shut tight.

  Okay. Okay. He's loose, but he's not exploding with grain. The blood vessels to his feet are not constricting. His bowels are not compacting.

  I sprint to the top of each aisle--all empty--and then run to the arena. He's not there, either. Finally, over jets of breath whose size and frequency betray my growing panic, I rush to the corridor where we keep the tack. I can't imagine that Eva would take him out without asking, but I'm running out of possibilities.

  Her helmet is on a hook. Her saddle is on its rack. I bring my hand to my mouth, but not before crying out.

  He's been stolen.

  With the outside doors closed, there's no other possibility. Unless--

  I run toward the outside doors, listening to the little meeping noises that seem to be coming from my mouth. I'm not aware of making them, but there's no denying I'm the source.

  Outside, my last shred of hope vaporizes with the empty parking lot. It was an implausible situation anyway--that the hands had somehow arrived without me noticing, turned out Hurrah and only Hurrah, and then closed the doors and remained inexplicably outside.

  I'm frozen to the spot, paralyzed with fear.

  I've got to snap out of it, got to call the police, but from where? I opt for the house, where at least I'll have Mutti at my side.

  I'm halfway there, chugging and puffing uphill just as fast as my thirty-nine-year-old legs can manage, when thundering hoofbeats burst out of nowhere, from utter and dead silence, somewhere off to my left. I stop and turn, facing two fields where no horse has any business being because we reserve both for mowing in the fall in an attempt to minimize reliance on bought hay--a parsimony of Mutti's at which I scoffed until I tried, briefly, to manage the stable.

  Now, in late March, the tan stubble resembles straw more than hay, lightly frosted and mashed into a flat weave by the weight of the snow. The snow itself is gone, but the ground remains frozen. The hoofbeats are hollow, pounding in the relentless four-beat rhythm of a gallop and amplified by the field's slightly concave surface. They come from nowhere and everywhere, and I can't see a damned thing--distinct patches of fog dot the field, dozens of clouds dipped down to rest.

  I hold my breath and keep watching, trying not to blink, and just as I'm thinking that surely at some point the noise will have to materialize into horse, Boom! out of a fallen cloud flies a centaur--or, more precisely, my daughter with her long legs wrapped around my horse, bareback, helmetless, her naturally-blonde-but-currently-black hair streaming behind her, shoulders rounded and urging him forward with her hands, galloping as though a horde of Mongols are behind them. Galloping so hard, in fact, that I don't think she's noticed that they're headed straight toward one of the whitewashed wood fences that enclose our pastures.

  My heart lodges somewhere in my esophagus and stops. I can neither breathe nor cry out.

  Eva, please see the fence.

  Please God, make her see the fence.

  Eva, for Christ's sake, see the fence!

  And then it dawns on me that of course she sees the fence. She's looking right at it, and so is Hurrah. She's going to take it at a full gallop, bareback, on my seventeen-year-old one-eyed horse.

  In that absurd slow motion that precedes accidents, I prepare for all the possibilities--Hurrah will throw his front legs in front of him, locking his knees and sliding chest-first through the wood, which will splinter and snap, bursting like firecrackers. The impact will send my daughter flying over his head and over the fence and into the ground. She will crumple like an aluminum can, and--if she survives at all--will suffer catastrophic injuries to her head and spine. The split planks won't withstand Hurrah's massive body weight, and he will hurtle through with spears of wood studding his chest like banderillas in a hapless bull. And then his twelve hundred pounds will crash to a stop on top of Eva's one hundred and twenty, crushing her rib cage, her lungs, her everything.

  Or Hurrah will attempt the four-foot fence and my daughter--who, granted, has a wonderful seat, but what the hell does that matter when you're approaching a four-foot fence at a full gallop without so much as a bareback pad beneath you?--will come unseated. Where she'll be thrown is crucial: if she comes off during the takeoff, she'll fall sideways and probably clear of Hurrah. This is the best case scenario, because while there's no question she'll break something, chances are relatively good it will be a limb, hip, or collarbone instead of her neck.

  The final thought that runs through my head as they barrel toward the fence without any sign of stopping is that they'll clear the fence but miss the landing. Hurrah's front feet will come down and instead of finding purchase will skid forward on the frozen earth until his radius bones snap. Eva will have no hope--she'll simply slide around his shoulder, as I did on Harry, and hit the ground headfirst at almost thirty miles an hour.

  I watch helplessly, cold hands pressed to my cheeks.

  Hurrah raises his head and brings his chin toward his chest. His nostrils flare, his ears prick.

  I try to beam him a message: Don't do it Hurrah. I know what she's telling you, but don't do it.

  But there's no stopping them. Eva pumps her arms like a jockey in the homestretch, her strong young legs clinging to his rib cage. When they're within twenty feet of the fence I utter a whimper, and just as I wonder
whether I have the strength to watch or am going to have to turn away from the carnage, Eva suddenly turns her head and sees me. She leans back, yanks Hurrah hard to the left, throws an arm in the air, and screams a whoop of victory. With both hands back on the reins, she slows to a canter, and then further to a trot. She posts effortlessly, bareback. I can't help noticing this even as my heart is still decidedly upwards of its normal position.

  "Oh hey, Ma," she says, coming to a stop in front of me. "What's up?" Hurrah's nostrils flare in and out, flashing red. His striped rib cage heaves like a bellows, his flanks speckled with foaming sweat.

  I stare with my mouth open. My legs are tingly and liquid, and it's only through sheer force of will that I manage to remain upright.

  "You okay?" says Eva, leaning over and peering into my face. "You don't look so good. Did you even brush your hair this morning?"

  It takes me a few seconds to find my voice. "Eva, what are you doing?"

  "Duh. I'm riding. What does it look like I'm doing?"

  Again, I'm too stunned to speak right away. "Get off," I finally say.


  "Get off!"

  In the space of a split second, her face morphs from alarmed surprise to impervious belligerence. With eyebrows raised and lips pursed, she swings her right leg over Hurrah's back and slides down. She makes a point of not looking at me during this whole operation.

  I close my eyes and compose myself, willing my heart to slow. When I look again, she's pulled the reins over Hurrah's head and is straightening his forelock.

  "I don't see what you're so mad about," she says casually.

  I explode. "You were riding bareback! Without a helmet! Galloping toward a fence on frozen ground! On a one-eyed horse!"

  "So?" she says, completely unfazed. She clicks her tongue and walks toward the gate. Hurrah plods along beside her, blowing hard.

  "So?" I say in disbelief. "So?"

  I fall into step with them but on the opposite side of the fence. I glance nervously between the planks, watching Hurrah's legs closely. No sign of a limp. I straighten up. Even though they're both okay, I still have a distinct sense of vertigo. My breath is shaky, my body buzzes with adrenaline.

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